Technical aptitude alone is insufficient

Jimmy Connors, winner of 109 professional singles tennis titles says “There’s a thin line between being #1 or #100 and mostly it’s mental.”

In his well-researched book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman shows that it’s our attitude more than our aptitude that determines our altitude. Whilst our society lauds intellectual giants and power, Goleman’s research concludes, “At best, IQ contributes about 20 percent to the factors that determine life success, which leaves 80 percent to other forces.” Other EQ researchers, Robert Cooper and Ayman Sawaf consider this too conservative. In their book, Executive EQ: Emotional Intelligence in Leadership and Organizations, they write, “— IQ may be related to as little as 4 percent of real-world success — over 90 percent may be related to other forms of intelligence — it is emotional intelligence, not IQ or raw brain power alone, that underpins many of the best decisions, the most dynamic and profitable organizations, and the most satisfying and successful lives. Malcolm Higgs and Vic Dulewicz set out to disprove this “faddish idea” relenting after their own research that actually, Emotional Intelligence is of far greater importance than IQ and something they term “management quotient”.

There’s a growing consensus in the academic and popular literature that our attitude and our mindset are more important than our technical capability that make a difference to our success. As Zig Ziglar puts it, “Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.”

Difference makers have a better attitude

Consider all the things that Tiger could use as an excuse at the 2008 US Open:

Hadn’t played in a competition for 2 months

Recent knee operation – reduced fitness

Further damaged knee on swing during the tournament

Highly skilled and determined competitors

Poor first round

Pressure of historical wins

Expectations very high on his performance

Does not need the money

After blowing a three shot lead with 8 holes to play, Woods rallied and came to the 18th hole and stood over a birdie put to avoid an infamous defeat. He came through. Sudden death on the 7th saw an end to his fierce competition and Woods again took the trophy.

How many of us would find that sort of resilience within us?

Three steps to achieving your success

It’s all very well understanding and believing that our attitude is more important than our aptitude, but exactly what can we do about it? What makes the difference that you can develop?

There appears to be three major differences between those that achieve great success in their field, and those who remain in the obscurity of mediocrity.

  1. Successful people know what they want to achieve. They have a clearly defined goal.
  2. They are constantly seeking ways to learn and improve.
  3. They consistently present a positive attitude.

This isn’t intended to be an exhaustive and comprehensive list of must haves, but to highlight key difference makers that anyone is able to adopt.

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Clear goal you are pulled toward

There’s plenty of discussion on setting goals for yourself and how important it is to have a clear vision, a picture of your future.

Rather than go through all of that now, I’d refer you back to a couple of other articles I’ve written on the subject. Here though, I’d like to explore three different modes of how you get to your goal:

Push mode, Pull mode and Drift mode:

Push Mode

If you have to drive others towards an objective, even drive yourself towards it, I call this being in push mode.

Push mode is typified by focusing your attention on problems that need to be resolved, or things that need fixing. Many people use a ‘todo’ list or a GTD (getting things done) system. Are you one of them? Take a look at yours now and see if it is a list of problems.

The fun, creative or enjoyable things rarely make it onto a ‘todo’ list – rather there is a tendency to say that once the list is done and I have time, then I’ll do the fun stuff.

What’s more, you will already know that the things we pay attention to are the things that grow and the things we don’t pay attention to tend to fade away. So if we focus on problems (call them challenges or issues if you must but they are still the same thing), we will find that the problems grow. So here’s a radical thought, if we focus our attention on interesting, exciting, fun things, they will grow. And our problems, won’t they fade away?

“But you don’t understand. I have to get this report done, I have a ton of emails to clear, I have to attend this meeting, I have calls to make to angry customers, and if I don’t I’ll get fired. I simply don’t have time to talk to people, take it easy, smell the flowers…”

And when your stress levels have made you so sick that you can’t work, let alone afford the hospital bills you’ll feel what exactly? Accomplished? Valued? Important?

Nothing more satisfying than lying in bed recovering from a heart attack knowing how much your contribution is missed.

I’m not saying that these things (some of them anyway) don’t need to be done but that by not focusing on them, they will (and do) fade away. Oftentimes, they just get done. Without stress, without worry.

In Push Mode, we are continuously pushing ourselves (and others) towards our goals relying on our own effort to keep us on our straight and planned track. Obstacles that we face in our way are enemies to progress which may force us to re- plan our route. Our motivation stems from outside forces, the concrete and measurable goal is frequently thought to be motivation enough and any resistance to achieving the goal, self-inflicted or external resistance, is just another obstacle.

In Push Mode, when progress is slow, we re-plan and consider time management a priority. Only, unless you have discovered the secret to warping the space-time continuum, you cannot actually manage time.

Pull Mode

Pull Mode, on the other hand, is about leadership and paying attention to growth and improvement.

Rather than focusing attention on problems to be solved or fixed or overcome, in Pull Mode we take time to clearly envision our future and allow the goal to pull us towards it. The results of Push Mode and Pull Mode may appear to be the same (that is the achievement of the goal) but Pull Mode takes less effort and allows our unconscious activity to take precedence over conscious linear processing.

The idea of Pull Mode is that you create a vision of the future that is so compelling for you (and perhaps for others) that you cannot help but be drawn towards it. The things that you need to do on the way become minor irritants that simply get done and anything that really is not important is not done and fades into insignificance.

“Hold on, what if something that is important is not recognised as being important?” Excellent question. Things that appear to need to be done, whether important or not, on your journey are your friends – they are obstacles to your progress but think of them in terms of friends, or learning opportunities.

Let me take a personal example if I may. Two things about running a business that I personally do not enjoy: 1, Filing, 2. Doing the accounts. I appreciate that some people just adore filing and doing the accounts but I don’t. In Push Mode, I resist doing them until I absolutely have to or, usually, risk a penalty. It is the penalty that drives me to do it. I still hate doing it but I dislike paying a penalty more. In Pull Mode, these things still come across my path but now I see them as friends – the chance to look again at scraps of notes, letters or offers. I have learned to change my mindset from doing the filing to my enjoyment of a clear desk and in-tray and just do it. It’s no longer something I resist. Do I enjoy doing it? No, I don’t if I think about it consciously, I just let it happen.

“But what if it should be done and its not that critical or important?” The chances are, for me, that it won’t get done. Importantly, if I find myself resisting doing something, I stop, tune into my thought processing and ask myself why I am resisting it?

For example, keen observers may have noted that I didn’t talk about doing my accounts in Pull Mode above. You’d be right. It is something that I continued to resist – I can’t really explain what it is about doing the accounts that I just don’t want to do, and I found this quite strange considering that I do enjoy building spreadsheets of budgets and am quite au fait with P&L and Balance Sheet – and then it occurred to me that I like thinking through future scenarios, but what’s done is done. I honestly can’t be bothered about it. Now, of course, there’s legal compliance… and I realised further, I really don’t like to be told that I have to do something. So what did I learn from this resistance? I learned that I am quite happy considering the future and do not wish to have to create organisation of the past. Decision? Outsource to someone capable and trusted.

In Pull Mode, you only do the things that you want to do that move you towards your goal such that the work you are doing is effortless. Obstacles that need to be overcome that meet with your own resistance are a warning flag to you that something else is going on – stop and allow yourself to consider what the resistance is trying to tell you.

“Isn’t it possible then that you’ll go into Pull Mode, and miss the important things that need to be done?”

Sure it’s possible, but unlikely to be important in the achievement of the goal. Things that are a requirement in your society but have no direct relationship to the achievement of your goal. Yet there’s a third mode of being that is neither Push nor Pull, and that’s Drift Mode.

Drift Mode

The stresses of Push Mode, always making things happen and forever coming up against obstacles and ‘time-wasters’, causes many people to fall into Drift Mode rather than Pull Mode.

Drift Mode is quite different to Pull Mode, somewhat ‘New-Agey’ in influence where one just ‘lets things happen’. call it karma, fate, life forces, whatever – it generally involves emptying your mind of worries and anxieties and just letting life happen to you. Whatever way the wind blows, you drift along with it.

You might end up on an agreeable shore when you allow yourself to drift over the seas of life, or you might end up somewhere unpleasant, or. most probably, you’ll just continue drifting along.

Pull Mode is different because there is a clear and articulated vision of your compelling goal that is pulling you towards it. The aimlessness of Drift Mode may be refreshing for a while, but the anxieties of life will soon catch up and cause as much stress as Push Mode already does for the vast majority of people.


This mythical creature in Dr Doolittle provides a metaphor for how many leaders feel about leadership. They are in Push Mode for themselves, driving the agenda and encountering resistance of their ‘followers’ who have to be pulled, some suggest dragged kicking and screaming, in the chosen direction.

No wonder many leaders are exhausted. Many drive themselves to an early grave or opt-out entirely and fall into Drift Mode.

“How do I know which mode I’m in?”

Do you take pride in hard work? Do you brag about working more than 50 hours a week? Do you use ToDo lists? Do you think that in order for things to happen, that you have to make them happen?

If you answer yes to most or all, you’re in Push Mode.

Do you have a compelling vision of your future self? Find your work effortless? Know that everything that needs to be done will be done?

Sounds like Pull Mode.

Have a sort of idea what I want in the future? Take it easy whenever possible and avoid unpleasant tasks? If things happen they happen, if they don’t ‘they don’t?

Drift Mode.

“Surely it’s better for your health to be in Drift mode than Push Mode?” Sure, if you have a lot of savings or a rich family to fall back on. But if you have no goal in life, just what are you doing here?

What can I learn?

People who achieve great success are always learning. They seek ways to improve and are prepared to work through the difficulties of change required to become better.

Peter Senge in his book, The Learning Organization, expands in great detail about his idea for organizations to constantly seek improvement in everything. But what about learning at a personal level? What if you are currently at the top of your game? Surely you’ve already learned.

Our learning journey can go through a series of steps and the height of our performance is determined by our technical ability and our mindset, our aptitude and our attitude.

The journey is not always easy or straightforward. Let’s return to Tiger Woods…

Prepared to change

You’re at the top of your game, you’re doing better than anyone has ever done in your field. Technically, you are the best in your business. You earn more than anyone else in the same line of business. You have a serious competitive advantage. Why would you decide to change something fundamental about the way you do what you do?

After seven years and 142 tournaments in a row, Tiger Woods finally joined the ranks of mortal golfers when he missed the cut at the Byron Nelson Championship May 13, 2005. Golf pundits argue that changing his swing is to blame.

There was another reason, his knee. A physical problem that seems to not want to go away. But what makes Tiger stand out so much from the rest is not just his aptitude for the game, his superior technical skill… it’s his mindset. In spite of being in a great deal of pain… he overcame it with a determination, the will and resilience that allowed his technical brilliance to shine.

A Positive attitude

We all have days (sometimes weeks and months) where everything seems to be going wrong. Whatever you try to do, however clear your goal – there just doesn’t seem to be any progress.

Sports psychologists refer to the period when everything is going well and peak performance is apparent as being ‘in the zone’. Golfers who find their rhythm and the ball lands just so. The athlete who has trained and is at their physical and mental peak runs the race of their life. The business person who’s found themselves in the right place at the right time with the right product or service.

Yet most of the time, we just ain’t there. We yank the club and the ball lands in the bunker. Our business would be just great if we just land this additional sale.

Some days, it’s hard to wake up and find the energy to put on a brave face and go out there knowing that today probably isn’t that day, hoping that it is but not really believing it. We known we have to learn and improve but just when is my breakthrough going to come.

It may not come today, but one thing I can assure you of – something about today is better than yesterday.

What’s better today?

Being prepared to learn and change and put in the required effort is a critical step in constantly improving. But this carries the suggestion that we should focus on what is wrong, or what needs improving.

If we’re going to consider being in “pull-mode” towards our goals and ambitions, a much better question to ask is “what’s better today?”

When you meet someone, or write a message it is ‘normal’ to ask “how are you?” or “How do you do?” Now in doing so, do you really, truthfully want to know the answer?

“Well, I’ve had this terrible problem with my stomach and I didn’t sleep too well last night for all the stress I’m under and…”

How would you respond if instead I asked you “what’s better today?”

Would you reflect on improvements made? Would it cause you to think about some things have indeed moved forward?

Try it, I dare you! It makes it a whole heap easier to keep on going towards that goal.

Your Choice

People who have achieved great success know what they want to achieve and have a clear vision of their future.

They recognise that their technical ability, their aptitude is one (small) part that contributes to their achievement and constantly strive to improve.

Most importantly, they keep on keeping on, keep turning up and are prepared to learn and change whilst maintaining a positive attitude.

Even Tiger has a bad round of golf – nothing like as bad as most of us but bad for him. Do you see him quitting?

You were created to soar at altitude like an eagle not peck the dirt like a chicken.

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